What can be said about the end of the world now that couldn’t be said on December 21st, 2012? For one, there seems to be a lot more ambiguity surrounding the subject. Ancient predictions on Mayan calendars, mixed with post-Y2K anit-climax, have begun to infuse them with more and more film and theatre over the past few years. Just this past summer we got two different films, This is the End and The World’s End, about two very different visions for the end of the world, and now we’re getting a show about the light at the end of that ambiguous tunnel.
I first read about Anne Washburn’s play Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, last year when I glanced it as a part of Wholly Mammoth’s season. I read the title and was immediately filled with nostalgia for a time after my middle school and high school days would end and I’d go home and watch The Simpsons with my friends. I’m not claiming to be the biggest Simpons fan in the world by any means. In fact, as I’ve grown older my viewing of the show has become more and more infrequent, however I was startled by this show’s title having such a whimsical effect on me when I read about it a year ago.
The reason I write about Anne Washburn’s play now, one year after it’s premiere in DC, is because I recently discovered it’s finishing up a run at Playwrights’ Horizon in New York this week. And since the show has been out longer, with still no published script, I have been able to find out more information on the development of the show and just what on earth it is.
Last week I wrote about a local Boston theatre company, Project: Project, doing a show about the advancements in technology over the past ten or so years. This post, and this show for that matter, is a pseudo- sequel in my mind. Mr. Burns follows a group of survivors running for the lives after the end of the world. The world they’re in has no electricity and they must get over their fears of death and the end of time by telling stories, specifically trying to recall the specifics of the “Cape Feare” episode of The Simpsons.
I look at this plot and am immediately filled with hope. The idea that in mankind’s greatest hour of fear and uncertainty, the way we comfort ourselves and others is by telling stories is exactly the reason why I’m a part of the theater. The notion of storytelling as a consolation tool is one I’ve always identified with and has been a part of mankind since the first records of oral storytelling tradition. Storytelling is a part of human nature, and where we have a basic human need to share and listen to stories, we have a need for the theatre.
The recollection scenes in the play were written in a very improvisatory manor. Apparently Anne Washburn got eight actors, of the theatre troupe The Civilians, together and asked them to recount a Simpsons episode. According to the author, most of these original recollections the actors made are now lines in the script. This idea of workshopping scripts through improv isn’t a new idea; Keith Johnstone was doing it in the 50’s and 60’s and Carol Churchill developed much of her work this way. However, that something to be gleamed from all of those examples in that it provides for a very organic and human patter.
Another thing that makes me very excited about this play is the choice of the episode of The Simpsons at it’s center. The “Cape Feare” episode is part of a long line of parody episodes the show has had over the years. What’s so interesting about this parody however, is that it’s a parody of the 1991 Martin Scorsese remake of the original film from the 1960’s. We’re getting the story three times removed which plays with the idea of stories, like people, like cultures, evolving and shifting to match the needs of the storytellers and audience.
I have to remain optimistic about the state of theatre and, more importantly, new works when I read about plays like this, that not only reinforce the power of storytelling, but do so intelligently, with a sense of fun and invention, and with courage in the face of the darkest times we have ahead or right in front of us.